Funny Girl Victoria back on the road

Victoria Wood has repeatedly been voted one of television's funniest performers. Last year she took on a straight acting role in a war time drama Housewife, 49.

By Andrew Clarke

Victoria Wood has repeatedly been voted one of television's funniest performers. Last year she took on a straight acting role in a war time drama Housewife, 49. Now she is returning to her comic roots taking a musical version of soap spoof Acorn Antiques on the road. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke caught up with her in rehearsal.

Singer, songwriter, stand-up comedian, writer, actress and now theatre director - Victoria Wood is a woman of many talents but who is the real Victoria Wood? This is the question uppermost in my mind as I drive to Cambridge to interview the nation's favourite comedienne as she conducts rehearsals for the relaunched musical version of perennial favourite Acorn Antiques.

This is her first venture as a director and her first proper full-blown musical - which she says is important to her in the light of some less charitable reviewers who have accused her of looking backwards.

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Such criticism it seems is water off a duck's back, Victoria is her own worst critic. When the original production of Acorn Antiques opened in London in 2005 she wasn't happy with it. “I tend to do the opposite to the perceived wisdom. In the US they tend to preview new shows out of town. They look at the whole show, see how its running, judge an audiences reactions, tweak it, adjust it restructure it or rewrite it if it needs it.

“I opened Acorn Antiques in London with the full glare of publicity and then make changes for the regional tour. Basically what I have done is chop the original first act, move some of the songs about and slightly refocus it and I think it's a much stronger show now.”

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What was a near three hour comic experience is now a taut two hours and according to national critics much funnier for it. So was it difficult to revisit the nation's favourite antique shop and centre for bad acting? Half-remembered lines and missed cues, wobbly sets and non-sensical storylines where the hallmarks of this greatest of second-rate soap opera.

“It's 21 years since I first started writing Acorn Antiques. I do have a lot of affection for it but it was the public who were really responsible for me bringing it back. It's the set of characters that I get asked about most. People just wanted to see some more of Acorn Antiques. I wanted to write a proper musical but needed a readily identifiable background in which to stage the action, and I thought that Acorn Antiques would provide the perfect backing.”

It also provided her with the perfect opportunity to bring back members of her old repertory company with whom she has worked for most of the last 20 years - actors like Celia Imrie, Duncan Preston and her life-long friend Julie Walters. The London run saw the original actors reprising their television roles: Duncan Preston as the hapless Clifford, Celia Imrie as Miss Babs and Julie Walters as the irrepressible Mrs Overall.

Trevor Nunn directed the original production in London but Victoria Wood wanted to take over the reigns for the nationwide tour. She said that she does like ownership of a project - particularly now after many years in the business she says she knows what she is trying to achieve.

“I have always wanted to direct and this seems a very good vehicle for me to try my hand at it. Also Trevor did a fantastic job on the London production and gave me a very good template to base my interpretation on. The stage version of Acorn Antiques is an entirely different creature to something on television which was really just a long sketch. This is a full length, two hour full-blown musical. It's an entirely different beast. You have to pace the show and pace the laughs.

“What I love about directing is that it was much easier for me as a writer and performer to tell the actors where to leave a pause, where to speed things up, where to pick up cues, where they can do bits of business and where they should leave alone. Because I know these characters so well and have experience as an actress I feel confident giving direction because I have been there and I have done it.

“I don't know how directors go about directing if they haven't set foot on a stage before.” She added that it was great being able to reinterpret these characters with new actors in the roles for the regional tour. “Because these aren't the original actors we can shape them and make them come alive within the confines of the show and not just work as living memories of a much-loved TV show.”

The cast includes Sara Crowe (who found fame as the sweet but dim Philadelphia girl in the 90s television ads) as Miss Babs, Lisa Peace as Berta (Victoria Wood's old role) and Ria Jones stepping into Julie Walters battered old slippers as Mrs Overall.

The new musical is less of a spoof soap opera and more of an ethical comedy as Acorn Antiques takes on the might of the mutli-national chain stores in an effort to survive as a small shop on the increasingly competitive modern high street.

“It's really the story of three sisters trying to run this small shop. Should they remain an antiques shop in the face of increasing competition or should they sell-out and reopen as a coffee shop? It's a touchingly genuine situation. It something that has happened and continues to happen in every high street in Britain. Can these small, independent shops - frequently quirky shops manage to stay open and turn a profit in a world dominated by huge global chains?

“It's funny, it's Acorn Antiques, but it still has something to say and hopefully audiences will also enjoy the songs.” Victoria said that it was the songs that she tackled first. “I knew roughly what the plot-line was going to be about, so I tackled the song writing first. Most of my songwriting has been for me, so it was a real challenge to write songs that would fit into a musical format, be sung by other people and yet still advance the plot.”

She said that during the early days of development, parts of the show were extensively work-shopped in rehearsal to see if they actually worked. Victoria Wood says she doesn't regard herself as a control freak but does like to have a say in how her ideas are transferred to either stage or television. “I see how things should fit together in my head and after all these years I have a fair knowledge of the technical side of the process now and it is easier to do things myself rather than try and explain it all to a director who has only just joined the project a couple of days before.”

The fact that she was so keen on re-writing and restructuring the show after the London debut means that she is not afraid of criticising her own work. “The original first act was about a pompous director trying to impose his need for social realism onto a play which was really just a loving tribute to an old TV show. It was a nice idea but it didn't work when it was on stage. It just slowed everything down and needed just too much explanation for it to be immediately funny. So sadly it had to go.

“What we have now is faster and funnier and is much more like the full-on musical that I was planning in the first place.”

Victoria Wood is a very friendly, chatty interviewee but at first it is clear that she is quite hesitant. Fortunately conversation builds trust and one and two word answers start growing into complete sentences and before long she is happily telling stories and giving long involved answers.

I am still intrigued by what makes her tick. Is she a driven individual? How does she regard herself - a writer, a musician, a stand-up comedienne, an actress? Her revelations about her ambitions as a theatre director trigger another nagging thought - is she a control freak?

As we seem to be getting on okay - I decide to be bold and just ask these questions up front - starting with The Who Is She? question - which thankfully she takes seriously. “I suppose I'm all those things. I started out on New Faces and That's Life as a singer of comic songs - songs with a bit of truth and observation in them. That then led into me becoming a stand-up comedian which I did through most of the 1980s but at the same time I did a television play with Julie Walters called Talent which was very successful which I then followed a year later with a another one called Nearly A Happy Ending. So I was starting to diversify that early.”

She said that her TV sketch series Wood and Walters and Victoria Wood As Seen on TV were logical extensions of both strands of her work. This was followed with a series of one-off playlets about everyday situations called simply Victoria Wood and featuring her cast of regular supporting players.

Wood and Walters teamed up together again in Pat and Margaret - another one off play about two sisters who are brought together by a chat show after Pat (Walters) has become famous by appearing on a US soap opera. The film made good use of the bitter-sweet quality that runs through a lot of Wood's work.

Wood agrees that she likes to base her characters on people she sees on the street rather than constructing caricatures. “I do like my work to be based on reality or a version of reality. They are people who I like to think are only one stage removed from someone you could meet at work or in the local supermarket. If people can recognise them then they are much more likely to find them funny.

“Dinnerladies, for example, came from my own memories of going into a canteen. It was all there. All I had to do was really make arrangements to visit a works canteen for a day just to refresh my memory. Again the script was about people and their relationship with the world rather than sit-com jokes.”

She says that ideas for projects, as she calls them, just appear from no-where. “The idea for the film I was in last year Housewife, 49, came from a book I was given by a friend. It was the diaries of a woman who found herself during the Second World War - it was a true story and I loved the woman in those pages and wanted to bring her to life on screen.”

She said that there was no resistance to her playing what is essentially a straight role. “I just knew that woman and knew I could play her. The producers were fine with that and I was fortunate in having someone as good as David Threlfall to play against.”

I swallow hard before the big crunch question: “So would you say, in the nicest possible way of course, that you were something of a control freak.” There is silence for a split second before she answers with a smile: “No, not at all. It's just as a writer I know what I am aiming to achieve. Also I enjoy acting. I love performing. It's part of me. I couldn't just be a writer - in the same way I couldn't just be an actor performing someone else's words. I love being part of the whole process.”

Final question: Would you say you were driven, then? There is a longer pause this time. “Yes, I would say I was driven. Work is a very important part of me. I enjoy my holidays but I can't get away for more than a week.” But does your work define you - in your own eyes, I ask. “Yes, I suppose it does but on the other side of things my family is important to me too. My daughter is taking her A Levels this summer and I am already planning my life so I can be there for her. Work is very important to me but it is still part of my world - not all of it.”

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